Samantha Avina knows the importance of speaking up for yourself when navigating the field of scientific research. Avina, a 5th year Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, an ASM 2022 Future Leaders Mentorship Fellow and an ASM Young Ambassador, urges early-career microbiologists to prioritize their voice. “Make sure that you build a strong support system, and that you find the courage to speak up for yourself and use your voice,” she said. “I think for people of color, specifically women of color, there can be this mentality where we’re afraid to take up space in these environments that we’ve been systematically excluded from. We feel like we must be grateful for being a part of academia or other leadership positions, when we deserve a seat at that table just like anyone else.”
As a Mexican American first-generation college student, Avina said she was nervous about attending college and cognizant of the fact that she was not given the same opportunities as some of her peers. “I wanted to be a scientist, I just didn’t necessarily know what that involved, because I had never seen it. Any member of my family, all of us, were either workers or had different blue-collar jobs.” When Avina told her parents that she wanted to pursue a career in STEM, they said, “We want you to have options. We want you to have opportunities that we didn’t.”
When Avina started the college application process, she was interested in pursuing a career as a marine biologist and attended Hawaii Pacific University (HPU) in 2013. However, about halfway through her bachelor’s degree, Avina decided to switch her major to biochemistry, with a particular interest in science at a more granular level.
Throughout her time as an undergraduate student, Avina navigated balancing the cost of education and needing to find a job with her desire to participate in research endeavors. “Dr. David Horgen, my true first mentor, believed in me. When I wanted to quit pursuing research activities, he helped me apply for scholarships so I could quit 1 of my 3 jobs and continue investing in my research career,” she said. Avina did just that, as she pursued multiple opportunities throughout her time as an undergraduate student, including working as an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Chemistry at HPU and mentoring her peers as a Scientific Instrumentation Mentor (SIM).
Avina also participated in the Rutgers Summer Undergraduate Research Program in 2017. Through this opportunity-which allows students to explore various research subjects and encourages them to apply to graduate school-Avina found support in applying to graduate programs, a process that was unfamiliar to her. Eventually, she started her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, immunology, inflammation and infectious diseases at Rutgers in 2018.
Currently, Avina’s research focuses on antifungal vaccine development, specifically against Cryptococcus neoformans. “When people think of pandemics or needing a vaccine, they think of viral- or bacterial-based vaccines. Those are the predominant types of pathogens that we think of, but fungal pathogens are raising concerns around the world at an alarming rate,” she explained.
At present, there are no fungal vaccines available for clinical use. C. neoformans is an opportunistic pathogen, meaning those who are immunocompromised are highly susceptible. In fact, C. neoformans is the cause of about 20% of HIV/AIDS related deaths worldwide and was recently cited by the World Health Organization as a top pathogen to investigate and raise public health awareness on the fungal priority pathogens list. Infection with C. neoformans occurs when inhaled spores travel to the lungs of the host. Once Cryptococcus crosses the blood-brain barrier, it results in cryptococcal meningitis with a 90% mortality rate.
Avina is working with her thesis mentor Dr. Chaoyang Xue and co-thesis mentor Dr. Amariliz Rivera to develop a potential Cryptococcus-based fungal vaccine candidate. Avina’s thesis focuses on identifying the antigenic factor in her lab’s heat-killed f-box protein C. neoformans mutant, and characterizing the role of B cell-mediated immunity in the vaccination strategy.
The broad impact of this research would be production of a first-ever fungal vaccine for clinical use. “It’s especially exciting because our vaccine candidate has cross protection against multiple species, including Aspergillus fumigatus and C. gattii, which are major fungal [pathogens] that we’re worried about from a global health standpoint,” Avina explained. “We are broadening our arsenal of antifungal tools. Right now, there are antifungal drugs available, but they are limited in their use, especially as we see antifungal resistance on the rise, along with toxicity of long-term use [of antifungal medications].”
Even with her list of accolades and achievements in STEM, Avina said she struggled with imposter syndrome and speaking up for herself. As one of ASM’s 2022 Future Leaders Mentorship Fellows (FLMF), Avina remembers attending her first FLMF event and seeing people in the room who reflected some of her own identities. “It was really empowering and quite emotional,” Avina recalled. One FLMF workshop focused on imposter syndrome and how it can impact people from historically underrepresented groups.
This event, in part, inspired Avina to apply to be an ASM Young Ambassador and host her own workshops focusing on empowering young scientists to refine their interpersonal skills and be able to have difficult conversations while prioritizing their own voices. “Being able to talk with students who came from similar backgrounds as me about imposter syndrome and how to combat it at an early stage-I wish someone would have had a conversation with me about that. It’s something that we need to acknowledge and work as a community to combat,” Avina said. “When people from historically underrepresented groups have been systematically kept out of these conversations and career paths, it’s understandable that it’s a feeling you would have.”
In Avina’s 4th year of her Ph.D. program, she put the skills she developed to combat imposter syndrome and to use. After working in her former lab for a few years, she recognized it was not conducive to the environment that she needed to fully thrive for her research career-and she spoke up. “The process of deciding to leave my lab, it really fed into my impostor syndrome. I felt that I failed not only myself, but my community. It bolstered those feelings of, ‘I should feel lucky to be in the program, I should be grateful,'” she explained. Avina focused on championing her own needs to be successful. This meant drawing from her strong support system, which included her mentors and friends in the program. “Looking back, it was a huge learning experience for me. Truly believing in myself and being able to use my voice to make changes for what I needed to succeed [was vital].”
Reflecting on her time as a Ph.D. candidate, Avina also wants her fellow graduate students to focus on their mental health, “especially [for people from historically underrepresented groups] where there is stigmatization on maintaining mental health and where there can be a clash with older generations [with the belief] that maintaining mental health is a ‘luxury.'” “The state of mind is a make-or-break aspect of success in this field. It takes more than perseverance and endurance,” she said. Avina recommends Managing Your Mental Health During Your Ph.D. by Dr. Zoë Ayres as a go-to text for students to access mental health tools and resources.
Avina hopes to inspire other early-career scientists to speak up and ensure their voices are heard. Avina held the position of student program coordinator for the Rutgers’ Summer Research Experience for Undergraduate Students program from 2019-2022, where she taught students about presenting scientific research and combating imposter syndrome. She was also a Rutgers iJOBS Blog senior editor, which allowed her to provide outreach to current and prospective students about the support system within Rutgers School of Graduate Studies. iJOBS has also co-sponsored events Avina planned as an ASM Ambassador.
“Speaking up for yourself is so important because [as someone from a historically underrepresented group], you don’t only represent yourself, you represent your community,” Avina said. “I found that as these spaces become smaller and less diverse, it becomes imperative that you voice your goals and aspirations for yourself and work toward improving the path for the next generation to succeed. And that doesn’t have to be in hindsight, you can have an impact in real time.”